Suits by in-laws against daughter-in-law can be tried by civil court also: Delhi High Court

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The Delhi High Court recently held that family courts do not have an exclusive jurisdiction over the civil suits filed against the daughter-in-law by her in-laws when the reliefs being sought are in the nature of possession or injunction.

The division bench of Justice Yashwant Varma and Justice Dharmesh Sharma thus clarified that such disputes can be adjudicated by the civil courts as well.

It emphasised that a matter would fall under the purview of family court only when the circumstances have a direct bearing on the marriage.

Justice Yashwant Varma and Justice Dharmesh Sharma
The proprietorship rights or ownership rights to immovable property are not integral to maintaining the matrimonial relationship, said the Court.

“Indeed, when it comes to a dispute as between mother-in-law and/or father-in-law on the one side and their estranged daughter-in-law on the other side, the claim of proprietorship or ownership of a property and thereby seeking relief in the nature of possession and/or injunction by its very nature incidentally indicates a matrimonial relationship, but such relationship is not a foundational fact so as to lay a claim. Such relationship is not at the core of the dispute but exists independently in civil law, and thus, the Family Courts do not exercise exclusive jurisdiction over such disputes and as an inevitable corollary the jurisdiction of Civil Courts is not barred,” the Court held.

The Court passed the ruling on the questions referred to it by a single- judge after noticing conflict of opinion in decisions of coordinate benches with regard to jurisdiction of family court and civil courts in such disputes.

The primary question before the division bench was whether the claim of a third party like father-in-law or mother-in-law against either of the spouses should exclusively be tried before the family court, thus ousting the jurisdiction of civil court.

While a single-judge in Avneet Kaur v Sadhu Singh had ruled that a suit seeking eviction of the daughter-in-law by her in-laws would be maintainable before family court as marriage is the foundation of such dispute, other judges in earlier decisions had held that such suits would be outside the purview of the family courts.

After considering the submissions made before it by the counsel representing parties, amicus curiae Dr Amit George and cases laws, the Court held that ‘marital relationship’ has to be interpreted de hors the meaning and import of the term ‘family’.

“The expression, ‘marital relationship’ when bifurcated brings out that the word ‘marital’ has been defined as ‘of or relating to marriage or relations between husband and wife’ while ‘marriage’ has been defined as a ‘formal union of a man and a woman, typically as recognised by law, by which they become husband and wife’,” it explained.

The Court further said that every suit or legal proceeding under the Family Courts Act must explain the ‘cause of action’ for instituting it and such cause must be one which falls within the jurisdiction of the family courts.

“The cause of action, in order to bring the case under the subject provision and so as to confer jurisdiction upon the family court must encapsulate a tangible averment that the dispute is one which has an intrinsic nexus with the martial relationship,” it said.

The Court added that circumstances should be of such a nature that it is demonstrable that the dispute is closely emanating from and surrounded by such matters which are integral to the marital relationship.

Mere existence of a marital relationship between the litigating parties howsoever tangential cannot be the basis or the foundation for the proceedings being brought before a family court, it clarified.

Thus, the Court disagreed with the interpretation of the Avneet Kaur case wherein it was held that only family courts would have the jurisdiction to such disputes.

“It is likely to open a pandora‟s box, which would risk inclusion of all disputes as between the parents and their married children and even siblings within its ambit,” the division bench said.

The Court agreed with amicus’ argument “that prioritising the cause of action in determining the correct jurisdictional forum also ensures that family courts can maintain their specialized focus on matrimonial matters, avoiding a situation of becoming overburdened with cases unrelated to marital relationships”.

In conclusion, the Court said that the question whether the claim connected to a marital relationship would lie before the family court or the civil court must be examined and answered on an identification of the foundation of the claim.

“An assertion of a particular suit or proceeding being liable to be tried exclusively by the Family Court would succeed only if it is established that there is a direct nexus between the ‘cause of action’ and the ‘marital relationship’.”

The Court, thus, overruled the Avneet Kaur judgment and expressed agreement with the contrary views in other judgments.

Meanwhile, the Court also ruled that mere impleadment or non-impleadment of the husband in the suit filed by his parents would not be determinative of the question relating to the jurisdiction of the family court.

“The joinder or non-joinder of parties would have to be considered in light of the plethora of case law which already exists on that issue. Ultimately and irrespective of whether a husband is joined or not, the jurisdiction of the Family Court would have to [be] ascertained based on the cause of action and whether that is founded on the marital relationship or has a mere casual or incidental connection to the cause,” it said.

Amicus Curiae Dr Amit George appeared along with Advocates Rishabh Dheer and Arkaneil Bhaumik.

Senior Advocate Rakesh Tiku with Advocates Rakesh Kumar, Tarun Pilania and Sandeep Kumar represented the appellant.

Advocates Nakul Mohta, Misha Rohatgi Mohta, Bharat Monga and Riya Dhingra represented the defendants.

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